Tuesday, October 8, 2013

What’s “shocking” in theatre?


 
Albee’s Zoo Story.  Or Sylvia, or The Goat.  Or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for that matter.  Profanity certainly isn’t shocking anymore; more appalling in excess.  Nudity always has some appeal but it doesn’t really “shock” in this day and age.  And of course there are a handful of truly taboo subjects… and a few dozen flimsy, politically incorrect, expressions that substitute for the truly taboo.

Our current production could be (let’s face, most likely someone will be) called shocking.  In a recent interview, Albee became insulted when the reporter suggested that he was intentionally shocking in his work.  Albee replied that he “put it in there because that’s what was happening.”  It was the logical extension, expression of the character's given circumstance, psychologically. 

In writing A Beautiful Home for the Incurable, a play about an agoraphobic man, I became concerned that as a comedy it would either be considered offensive or un-funny.  I spoke with a friend who suffered from agoraphobia, and she said that if I just wrote the truth it wouldn’t be offensive, but it would be funny.  There wasn't any humor in the experience of mental illness, but its expression was often quite funny. That’s how I feel about the idea of shocking.  As a tool for engaging the audience, shock tactics are trash, manipulation of the worst kind.  The truth can be plenty shocking on its own.  In The Disappearance of Mary Rosemary the shocking elements are a natural extension of the characters; in my mind, they are the only outcome, the only choice that made logical sense.  Perhaps people would be less shocked if I had fully explored things in a more literary fashion, from a distance, but that would also lack truth.  One doesn’t have to “explore” a glass of water being knocked over; it simply happens.  And the glass does get knocked over.

UPDATE 10/10/13:  I predicted that this production would be called shocking, but it wasn't until it happened that I recognized what polite "finger-pointing" looks like in this  day and sensibility.  People, especially those that want to considered educated and liberal, don't like to appear "shocked" by anything that might reveal them to be narrow minded.  Instead, they devise euphemisms to convey their dismay, while portraying themselves as "unshocked."  A reviewer, after being wholly distracted by the fact that the play wasn't a Woman in Black clone (a play they felt we produced exceedingly well in 2009), remarked that the ending was "VC Andrews" but not in a good way.  Which is the polite way of saying it shocked her sensibilities, but she didn't want to admit it.  The problem-- besides wanting the play to be something it wasn't designed to be-- is that being shocked means being thoughtless, unreflective, taking one's own preconceptions and values as universal without examining what the text may be conveying.  The problem with "shocked" is that it is entirely self-satisfied.

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Monday, October 7, 2013

My Director's Notes Go Video

The Disappearance of Mary Rosemary has opened with a bang!  For the past couple of shows I've wanted to do my "Director's Notes" in the program as a video-- accessible by QR Code in the program.  Previously, the last weeks of rehearsals/load-in/tech have been so hectic that I haven't been able to even attempt video notes, but this show I finally did it.  I don't know whether it will truly prompt people to use their phones to see/hear my notes; we'll see.

For those without smart phones, here it is:

  video

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Monday, September 23, 2013

Anticipation, Captivation, and Impact


Last year, Theatre Bay Area sponsored a study on the impact of theatre on audiences, and how that related to satisfaction and customer loyalty.  In many respects, the study didn’t reveal much that practitioners didn’t already know from experience; nonetheless, it is a largely unstudied relationship, which makes their work both interesting and commendable.  They published their results, albeit without some of the most compelling figures (statistics, people, we want raw numbers!).  For instance, they report that women were more likely to be the “deciders” on going to the theatre—picking the plays and purchasing the tickets—but don’t reveal the stats behind that statement, the percentage of women deciders versus men, (let alone its statistical significance).

They did produce a nifty chart summarizing their findings. The diagram “illustrates key relationships between readiness, impact and loyalty, based on the totality of the data set.”  To fully understand it, pay close attention to the "R Squared" value that shows the ability of one factor to influence or predict another.

 

One of the interesting take-aways is the suggestion that knowing the story before  going to the theatre adds to both the anticipation and overall emotional impact.  Anticipation by itself (R squared = .16) didn’t lead to greater impact; finding the production “captivating,” naturally, lead to both deeper impact and greater likelihood that they would recommend the play to others.
One way to interpret these findings is to tell more of the play's story in your marketing material-- don't be coy.  That, apparently, helps get people to the theatre. You'll still need a great show to make them come back, though.

Now the study would really have been complete if they looked at how these elements correlated to alcohol consumption. 

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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Disappearance of Mary Rosemary Photo Shoot in 60 Seconds

Last week I met with three of our actors for our pre-press photo session.  We'll do a second round of press and archival photos after the show is up.  For a change of pace, I decided to do time-lapse video of the set up and shoot....

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Monday, September 16, 2013

Actors Have a Tell



What is it?  How do you spot it?  And what do you do once you do?
 
For this production I have the distinct challenge and pleasure of working with an all new cast; I’ve never directed any of my actors before.  This means, of course, that I have “learn” them, a process that is more important than communicating my vision of the play. 
 
A director’s vision can be communicated quickly when there are no obstacles.  It can also die on the vine if I don’t understand how to express myself so I'm understood, and identify  and address habits that may blur the clarity of each moment on stage.  “Habits” can blur that vision by mixing an actor’s mannerisms into a character’s.
 
Every actor develops habits.  They're like a “tell” in poker because they communicate something other than what we want.  Sometimes they are based on strengths— things that work well on stage; at other times they are attempts to cover up weaknesses.  Habits are not inherently good or bad: sometimes the ‘strengths’ are wrong for the character; sometimes the ‘cover’ works well.  The question is always whether they’re right for the character and provide clarity to the moment.
 
Some familiar actor-habits: 
  • ·         Slapping your hand against your thigh as you speak for emphasis
  • ·         Standing with your weight on one foot
  • ·         Soft vocality (swallowed words) at the beginning of lines… or the end
  • ·         Disconnecting or moving away for no reason after a confrontation
  • ·         Acting before the line rather than through it
  • ·         Speaking too quickly… or to s l o w l y….
  • ·         Trapping your breath in the upper chest
Sometimes these “tells” are the actor’s personal habits, but more often I find that they appear only when the actor is on stage.
 
Identifying actor-habits gets easier the longer you work in theatre, especially as a director (when you’re responsible for judging and crafting a performance and you observe them through all the stages of rehearsal).  But the main way to spot tells is by simply watching and listening.  Unfortunately, we don’t have the phrase "active watching" in our idiom.  Listening embodies the idea of pro-action, which I like.  Tells are often the most pronounced at the beginning of the rehearsal process, when the actor is getting  accustomed to the role, but they can come back later if they fall into old habits.  This is most painful when the habits re-surface after the rehearsal period, while the show is in production.  Which is why it's important to identify and address them early in rehearsal so the actor is a making conscious choice to do something else.  Spend the first few days of rehearsal watching actively, rather than being focused on shaping their work.
 
What do you do when you spot a tell?  Every habit  and every actor is different, so there’s no blanket solution.  Tactfully pointing out the habit to your actor is often sufficient.  Some habits are harder to change, though, and require supplanting the behavior with another.  If it’s  a physical habit, explore the way the character moves through the world, their gestures, and where emotions “live” in their body.  If it’s a vocal habit, play with other ones—musicality, elegance, sharpness.  Focus on the vocal creation of character.
 


Monday, September 9, 2013

And... we're back

As many of you know 2nd Wind's blog sleeps in between productions.  It's a way to protect and nurture our creative juices.  Those are, in point of fact, a little less ripe than in year's previous, and I find myself unsure of what I want to blog about for this production.  Luckily, we've got a tradition of posting images from our first read-thru as the initial blog of a new show, so I've gotten a "Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free" card for this round.  But I will say this-- The Disappearance of Mary Rosemary is the story of a little girl who disappears for several days on a small island, only to return with no memory of the event.  Years later, her fiancé can't resist the urge to bring her back to the isle... in doing so summing forces beyond his understanding. At its heart The Disappearance is an old-fashioned ghost story.  It was originally written by JM Barrie of PETER PAN fame, but after a smashing success, running for 340 straight performances, the play disappeared from the stage. This adaptation resurrects his story in the Louisiana bayou against the backdrop of soldiers returning from Iraq.

And now for those images....

 

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Monday, May 13, 2013

The Press Release: it ain't no art

Only once in the history of Second Wind have we brought in an outside publicist to market a show. It’s that it’s a bad idea. Actually, it can be a very good idea for young companies if you can afford it. We couldn’t very well, but the experience helped realize one thing: that they faced many of the same obstacles to “selling” our show to reviewers and editors as we did. We were new in the area, and few in the media knew us. But they knew him, so he was able to be helpful to a small degree. And that’s the second lesson we learned: It’s about personal relationships. That means you should have one person who is the media contact for the company; don’t “mix it up” from show to show. Be personable and be empathetic—they’ve got a lot of demands on their schedule and it’s no fun saying “no” to people.


Our wizened publicist shared his press release for our show so we could proof it. I was appalled. It was three and half pages, densely packed with words. It made you want a cup of coffee or a cigarette before you even attempted to read it. It’s how I feel about letters from the IRS. I learned two things from his press release. First, he didn’t really care if they read them; it was about his relationship with them. The press release was there for reference in case they decided to do a story. And to make me, the “client,” feel good. The second thing I learned is, with a little effort you can do it a whole lot better.

Yes, the relationship is the most important thing, but you don’t always have that. The press release can capture their attention, make it easy for them to decide about reviewing the show, and diminish the chance of mistakes because they couldn’t find the info right away.

So I thought I’d share two examples of a theatrical press release. The first comes from the Donmar theatre in London. I used it as the basis from our press release for KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN. You’ll notice how succinct and direct it is. It’s largely a teaser. They don’t need more because they’ve got a strong reputation in the theatre community and an existing relationship with the media. The second is from our production of KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN. We use a more visually dynamic approach, and communicate much more info. You might criticize it as being crowded (truthfully, it is a bit crowded), but we’re also selling the company as much as the show. For your press release, let your relationship with the press, and your feelings about your show, guide your decisions.

Donmar KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN Press Release
Second Wind KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN Press Release

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Hop on the Goldstar Poverty Train

Okay, I’ve complained about this before. 

 Sustainability has always been a struggle for theatre companies, regardless of their size.  The threats to long life as a company, are constantly evolving.  Ten years ago, who would have thought “instant entertainment” in the form of downloadable movies and music would be an obstacle to filling our seats?  Goldstar’s role in our eco system has also evolved.  Initially, the half-price giant was largely positive—allowing companies to reach out to new audiences and fill empty chairs.  But as they’ve become one of the primary ways that people purchase tickets—and as they’ve evolved from a “half-price” vendor to a “half price… or maybe we’ll just give away our inventory because we’re desperate” huckster, their effect on sustainability has become perilous.

Take their recent “Comp Train” campaign.  While companies are faced with increased economic hazards—from a weak financial system to the lure of instant, nearly free entertainment—Goldstar decided the remedy was a special “comp” ticket giveaway.  I place “comp” in quotes because companies are providing comps, but Goldstar is selling them at a mark-up higher than what they’d normally get for the ticket.  It’s not enough that companies can, at any given moment, decide to sell comp tickets; no, Goldstar has now created a special event to do so, pitting those companies who already offer 50% off tickets against those willing to drink the Cool Aide financially.

 

Goldstar will say that they’re simply encouraging new sales and opportunities for these companies:  people who might not normally see your show will.  This is wholly disingenuous.  The lure for companies isn’t new customers or relief from an empty house, and Goldstar knows it.  The reason to contribute comp tickets is so to raise your position on the weekly email blast, and the possibility of being named a “hot ticket” in their second, weekly email.  This puts companies in the position of not competing for customers, or awareness, but for preferential treatment by Goldstar.  Give us freebies and we’ll work a little harder for you.  In other situations, this would be called a bribe.

I don’t like to “complain” without providing solutions, so I’ll offer some.  First for Goldstar:  stop doing these ridiculous comp train promotions and discourage the use of comp tickets through you.  Second, stop ordering the events in your email by popularity; randomize them.  Customer reviews are sufficient for buyers interested in popularity—promote all shows equally.  And finally, stop re-writing event descriptions.  It homogenizes them and you aren’t as familiar with the show as the promoter is, nor have you spent as much time considering how to market it...and frankly, you’re not that good at writing copy.

What can companies do?  First, demand these changes if you agree with them.  How do you demand?  Simply:  talk about it—to Goldstar, amongst yourselves, and your customers.  And second, never stop diversifying your audience base.  Performance arts are ultimately about community.  Even Broadway shows are somewhat based on this dynamics of community:  The Lion King has a position in the community, in people’s minds, and there is a certain type of person that goes to the show.  Goldstar’s system discourages community building.  You don’t get their contact info; they don’t find your show through your website; they don’t leave their feedback with you, but with Goldstar.  You need to build your own.

 

 

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Monday, April 22, 2013

Great Critics = Great Plays?

Can great and enduring plays emerge from communities without insightful and valued critics? Certainly, back in Shakespeare’s or Chekov’s day the answer seems (at least at this distance in time) to be a resounding “Yes:” There appears to be no connection between the criticism of the day and work being produced. But today, in our contemporary society, I’m not sure the answer is so clear.


Last week, the Pulitzer Committee announced the winner and runner-ups in Drama. In order to be considered, the play had to have received its world premiere during 2013.  In some respects, a Pulitzer is given as much to a production as it is a play.  This year, all three plays/productions had the New York productions. The Big Apple is known for theatre, and the city (and its newspapers) take it seriously. Can it be that there was no play/production from Chicago worthy of even runner-up status? Seattle? LA? San Francisco?  Not one out of three was recognized outside of NY?  Certainly, there must be accomplished playwrights producing at the top of their abilities in these cities?

Granted, the Pulitzer is administered out of New York. It’s a rather secretive process. The first line of reviewers can be from anywhere in the nation. Their recommendations are forwarded to the final panel, whose members either reside or meet in the Big Apple. So it’s easy to see how NY productions that are more readily accessible and visible to the panel tend to be chosen for the prize. When Next To Normal won two years ago, it wasn’t even recommended to the final panel. An enthusiastic panelist suggested they all go see it together (now might be a good time to note that the final Pulitzer panelists aren’t theatre professionals, it’s not their field of work). Giddy enthusiasm and lack of actual expertise won the day—much to the fury of the initial reviewers—and Normal won.

But I don’t think the location of the Pulitzer Committee provides a complete picture of the issue. The Pulitzer is only one indicator of “great and enduring” work. Arguably, a major play hasn’t emerged from San Francisco since Angels in America. And here I think is the crux of the matter.

It’s not that great, enduring work isn’t being created in other cities; it’s that they are not emerging from other cities. Here in San Francisco, our ability—both artistically and logistically – to highlight exceptional new plays has deteriorated over the past decade. There are lots of factors: newspapers give less resources to theatre arts, audience reviews have become more persuasive, theatre reviewers sometimes vary wildly in expertise, the economics of producing discourages major houses from premiering new work, and the sense that theatre should represent a specific community has been lost.

Without a doubt there is still exceptional theatre being produced in San Francisco, and both major and minor houses are surviving the economic storms. But increasingly, I see the deterioration of a viable eco-system for theatre. Our diminishing cadre of reviewers, the diminishing number of column inches, and diminishing importance of their words may have tragic consequences.

Critics don't make theatre or playwriting better.  It's not in their power and it's not their job.  But they facilitate its emergence into the world.  They need to be insightful, to seek out new work, to elevate and advocate new plays, to be learned in all aspects of theatre production, to act as the voice of the theatre community; they need to return emails when invited to shows like working professionals, set aside their egos, find ways to be creative in the face of diminishing publishing opportunities.  They are not solely responsible for championing new work and making it visible on a national level-- theatre companies play have a responsibility as well-- but they have a unique leadership role.  And if we ever want to see the Pulitzer recognize a San Francisco production again, they're going to have to step up to the plate.

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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Lullaby Tree in Images

Wow.  That was like giving birth to an alligator.  This was no easy show to bring to the stage:  complex set, elaborate costumes, dense script, emotionally drenched dramatic arc.  And then we replaced two actors half way through rehearsals, and brought in a co-director.

But the final result seems to be a thing of remarkable beauty.  On Sunday we invited photographer Olya Gary (http://olyagary.com/portfolio/) to shoot the show, and I think the images portray the power and emotional impact of the play.  I quickly spliced them into a video, which you can see here.

video

Grab your ticket while they last!  http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/342680

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